We describe sensitive new approaches for detecting and quantitating protein-lipid interactions using analytical ultracentrifugation and continuous size-distribution analysis [Schuck (2000) Biophys. J.78, 1606-1619]. The new methods were developed to investigate the binding of human apolipoprotein E (apoE) isoforms to size-fractionated lipid emulsions, and demonstrate that apoE3 binds preferentially to small lipid emulsions, whereas apoE4 exhibits a preference for large lipid particles. Although the apparent binding affinity for large emulsions is similar (Kd approximately 0.5 micro m), the maximum binding capacity for apoE4 is significantly higher than for apoE3 (3.0 and 1.8 amino acids per phospholipid, respectively). This indicates that apoE4 has a smaller binding footprint at saturation. We propose that apoE isoforms differentiate between lipid surfaces on the basis of size, and that these differences in lipid binding are due to a greater propensity of apoE4 to adopt a more compact closed conformation. Implications for the role of apoE4 in blood lipid transport and disease are discussed.